What does COVID-19 mean for SLSNZ and its Emergency Call Out Squads?

Tuesday, 14 April 2020


Emergency Call Out Squad standard attire, left, and Emergency Call Out Squad COVID-19 Personal Protection Equipment attire.

A Q&A session with SLSNZ National Lifesaving Manager Allan Mundy about the impact of COVID-19 on the organisation's Emergency Call Out Squads.

Q What does the lock down mean for Surf Life Saving NZ (SLSNZ) in general?
A We all have to work together as an organisation but in a different mode – use online options wherever possible and be mindful that things we have done in the past may not happen while in one of the four stages of the COVID-19 response. Some new things may need to be done, and if so, don’t expect things to go as planned – the best plans are only as good as the first deployment. But the best teams are those who can adapt to the unforeseen challenges.

Q Have you seen anything like this before?
A Not like this. The closest would be the Rena response. The Rena oil spill occurred off the coast of Tauranga in October 2011. That was a Maritime New Zealand and Civil Defence Emergency, which Surf Life Saving’s Eastern Region was heavily involved in. There were some Tsunami warnings and the public were required to follow new restrictive rules. We learnt some good lessons which hopefully are applicable in this Civil Defence emergency.

Q Are SLSNZ members part of this response?
A Yes, our Emergency Call Out Squads (ECOS) are still on standby, and so far have been tasked to several incidents. 

Q Do these taskings surprise you?
A No, over the 6 month period last year SLSNZ’s ECOS responded to more than 50 lifesaving jobs. A lock down, unfortunately, will not guarantee that everyone will follow the advice from the experts as they should and that no one will venture out in the water.

Q If someone needs rescuing or assistance while in the water, under these extraordinary conditions will that not put our ECOS crews in danger of contracting COVID-19?
A Yes, there is a heightened risk of contracting the virus. The crews have to respond to someone they know nothing about who will be well outside their bubble.

Q What measures do we have in place to protect our ECOS members?
A SLSNZ has been working with New Zealand Search and Rescue and the New Zealand Police to have our ECOS on the essential services list. We have been working to develop an understanding of the appropriate Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) required for our ECOS members and working to secure supply lines for the equipment.

Q What challenges has that created?
A 1) There are challenges around the type of PPE our squads need. Given the dynamic wet environment our ECOS teams may be required to operate in, the standard PPE most emergency services are using is not fit for purpose for our ECOS members. After some consultation with marine experts, a half face respirator mask has been ordered to meet the ECOS’s needs. This mask fits better, is reusable, exceeds the N95 filtration standards, and will withstand a wet environment but not full emersion. The reusable nature means the squads do not need to replace the masks every time they are used. The remaining PPE is standard within the emergency services. Wrap around protection glasses and coveralls.
2) There are also challenges around the supply chains. SLSNZ was added late onto the essential services list – at 1pm on the Wednesday before the midnight lock down. Discussions on PPE were well advanced but supply chains were not open to any non-essential organisations at that time. So when the go ahead was given, even though we had three potential suppliers in negotiations, all were sending clear messages stock was either extremely low or out altogether. We were well down the supply chain with the Ministry of Health and even if we were at the top of the list, the N95 mask was out of supply worldwide. The other two supply chains were happy to place SLSNZ at the top of their supply list along with Coastguard. Luckily Bunnings were prepared to assist SLSNZ and their ECOS’s to rally around their many stores and get PPE out to the ECOS teams. This supply is now underway and we expect to have the PPE out to all squads by the end of this week.


Emergency Call Out Squad COVID-19 Personal Protection Equipment - head wear. 

Q What extra preparation do the ECOS crews need to undertake before deploying in this new environment?
A An email was sent out to all the ECOS coordinators on March 28, 2020, which has been passed on to their crew. The email contains a memo explaining the risks, how to mitigate them and provided the ECOS members with some You Tube content on the use of the PPE. We are fortunate to be supported by St John Ambulance in this area who are able to provide up to the minute technical advice for first responders on how to manage patients in a COVID-19 world.

Q Can non-ECOS lifeguards and club members help out their local ECOS team?
A No. The lock down makes it quite clear only essential services are to operate when required during the lock down. This helps keep the bubble as small as possible. The ECOS teams are highly skilled to be able to respond under normal conditions. They will be challenged to respond under these extra ordinary conditions. Untrained ECOS lifeguards will not be equipped to safely respond to all the risks of an ECOS tasking, not to mention the added risk of a COVID-19 risk factor.
When responding the entire team must be traceable in case of a possible COVID-19 infected person being rescued. Having too many Surf Lifeguards respond will make the job of tracing all those who were involved too difficult and open up a potential for a cluster outbreak.

Q Do all the squads have the PPE they need?
A Not yet. Over the next few weeks the squads will be equipped with the gear as it comes to hand. Some ECOS teams have the convenience of having a Bunnings Trade store with stock in their town. These squads were stocked last week. Other squads are either some distance within a Bunnings Trade such as Kotuku in Bulla on the West Coast of the South Island which is five hours drive from the nearest Bunnings outlet in Christchurch or the local Bunnings trade is out of the PPE. In all of these cases SLSNZ Staff are driving to the stores who have stock and couriering it out to these squads. This will take some time due to availability of stock and courier availability.

SLSNZ will continue to support all the ECOS members during these uncertain times with ongoing supply of PPE, training and information memos and open communication channels. We can be proud of these special people, they are extremely adaptable innovative and dedicated to saving lives. I am sure all SLSNZ members will take this opportunity to wish the ECOS members all the best and thank them for their hard work to come.


For more information, contact: 
Melanie Louden
Media and Communications Manager
Surf Life Saving NZ
021 757 433